An erotic thriller without the eroticism, Park Chan-wook’s Decision to Leave spins a masterfully twisty tale of duty and obsession disguised as a police procedural resulting in one of the best films of the year.
Hae-jun (Park Hae-il) is an insomniac workaholic detective working in Busan, South Korea away from his wife Jung-an (Lee Jung-hyun) in Lido. Haunted by unsolved cases, Hae-jun investigates the seemingly accidental death of a hiker. The more he investigates, the more he suspects the man’s Chinese wife Soo-rae (Tang Wei) of foul play. The further Hae-jun’s investigation goes, the more he becomes attached to Soo-rae. Eventually, Soo-rae is cleared of wrongdoing, and Hae-jun moves back to Lido.
Months later, Hae-jun runs into Soo-rae and her new husband Ho-shin (Park Yong-woo). Hae-jun tries to move on with his life, but later investigates a murder victim who turns out to be Ho-shin. With increased eyes and tortured morals, the pair again come together to find some sort of resolution.
Despite having all the elements of a cat-and-mouse erotic thriller, the erotic elements are excluded. Is Soo-rae keeping Hae-jun at arm’s length on purpose, or is their relationship meant for deeper understanding? The dual understanding that each party is enamored with the other deepens the connection, but the actual physical consummation of that relationship would render it pointless. It’s all about the longing and the wanting of something that is unattainable.
Seo-rae’s lack of Korean fluency adds further distance between the pair, but it adds to the tension. Does Seo-rae mean what she says or is it someone who is using a language barrier to manipulate Hae-jun to get what she wants. That barrier also exists as the difference between police and civilian. Hae-jun has the insight and intuition that points to Seo-rae as a murderer, but how much is he willing to divulge for fulfillment? What is it Hae-jun is even trying to have fulfilled?
Wei gives a masterful performance as someone who is more than she says and still exactly who she proports to be. Each scene adds new layers to the actress’ performance while still uncovering as little as possible about the character. Her demeanor is one of calm control and omniscient awareness.
While Wei is deviously collected, Hae-il is emotionally shaken and unsturdy. Despite his ailments, Hae-jun is a man who knows what he is and knows his worth. The interactions with Seo-rae destroy his psyche and test his morals. Lesser actors could have turned Hae-jun into a messy heap of tics, but Hae-il keeps it all under control as his character is spinning out of it.
Chan-wook presents everything with a visual flair unlike any other director. Phone recordings flash back to the actual conversation. Surveillance puts Hae-jun in the room with Seo-rae. On the occasion the film has a foot chase between police and suspects, the camera moves like a shark. Chan-wook has always had a flair for action, and he utilizes those rare moments to give the narrative some momentum.
On paper, Decision to Leave is a straightforward police procedural. But with a talented cast and a twisty yet unexpected romance helmed by a director at the peak of his powers, it’s one film I won’t soon forget.
Decision to Leave is now playing in select theaters